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Arrogant Beggar Paper


(Class/Immigrant Experience)
As an immigrant, many come to a new country with very little; in terms of wealth,
standing, and security, they are lacking. Their motivations make perfect sense, in that case, as
they are usually in a situation of having little, and trading it for having less, but having a way
up. America offered that as the land of milk and honey, and advertised itself as such, Give me
your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of
your teeming shore, (Lazarus, The New Colossus) being emblazoned on the, then, symbol of
America's wealth and freedom, the Statue of Liberty. The Arrogant Beggar, a novel by Anizia
Yezierska, enters into this time, taking place in Progressive Era New York City, following the
story of a young woman, held back by her immigrant background and held down by class
differences. In the end, the point of the novel is not just to explain the class differences of the
time, but also to catalog the immigrant experience, shed light on the way different classes viewed
each other, and highlight the problems with the idea of assimilation.
At the start of the novel, Adele lives in cramped quarters, paying rent to a Mrs.
Greenberg, and dreaming of living elsewhere, perhaps in the splendor of the Hellman House,
with all of the many things she believes she lacks; a proper dining room, a gymnasium, a
laundry, even a place to invite someone over (Yezierska, 8). The most basic effect of her
immigrant background is apparent; when first arriving in a country, they have very little, and
though Adele was born in America, this means she is still at the lower end of the economic
spectrum. Not living in squalor, but what she has isn't anything like the rosy upper crust. A step
up from Thomas O'Donnell, the textile worker, as she has a job and no dependents, but her lot in

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life doesn't compare to even the middle class; she is one of the working class. As she leaves her
residence under Mrs. Greenberg, and seeks board at the Hellman House, she happens upon her
background again. The second question asked is that of her nationality, to which Adele answers
as American; the only answer that will avail her. Upon her admittance to the Hellman house, she
is greeted by a melting pot of cultures, Kikes, Wops, Micks, and Pollacks. Only thing that's
missing is a Chink to make it perfect(Yezierska, 22), all girls in the same trap as Adele,
managing what they can to move past their backgrounds. By the end of the novel Adele finds
herself happy, surrounded by her own people with migrant backgrounds like her, making up a
small piece of the roughly 76% of the city with such heritage (Foner, 680).
Class is another hurdle Adele faced in the story, which was not surprising, given it's ties
to her migrant background. Class during this time was not just a separation of wealth, but also a
subconscious understanding in society. The definition between classes caused the lower classes
to strive to raise themselves up, even as they were held down by the opinions of others. Adele,
herself, is a member of the lowest, the working class, which is made apparent in her relations
with them. When she kisses Mrs. Hellman's cheek, in gratitude, the woman wipes the area clean,
unwilling to stand not cleaning herself of Adele's touch(Yezierska, 47). And later, after Adele
tries to explain her feelings to Arthur, he explains, -- that's rather a wild statement(Yezierska,
pg 80), and directs her back to her work, back to her job as the lower class. While these class
differences were invalid in the long run, they were supported, in part, by the opinions on both
sides.
Adele's opinions of the rich and upper class change dramatically over the course of the
story, beginning with a hopeful and grateful view of Mrs. Hellman, morphing through confusion,

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dissatisfaction, disdain, and eventually to what seems like blase apathy; a remembrance of
ordeals passed. In the first few chapters, she sees Mrs. Hellman as a saintly figure. The quote,
Mrs. Hellman. What a face! The sunshine and goodness of the other world smiled at
me...(Yezierska, 8), highlights both her high esteem, and her own understanding of her distance,
that is, being a world apart from this higher class woman. Later, as the girls of the Hellman
House talk lowly of the home's benefactor, Adele tries to stick to her previous praise,
complaining that they, look[ed] for black spots on the sun. God! Wasn't it ever possible to
satisfy poor people?(Yezierska, 24), disregarding the opines and anecdotes of those who roomed
at the Hellman House. Her opinion peaks with her letter to the directors of the home, but nearly
immediately collapses, with her realization of the way Mrs. Hellman sees her. As here requests
for basic necessities are wiped away, she acquiesces, for appearances, but then laments it, God!
What's happening to me? I hate myself. I hate her for helping me! And I hate myself for taking
her help! (Yezierska, 51). A series of experiences drags Adele's opinions lower, which comes to
a peak with her speech to the Board of Directors of the home- an outburst and a cry out against
the management of the home, against the upper class and their charities. Much like the union
workers of the times, she removes herself from the situation, though not for the promise of
betterment or reparations, but in despise. After the death of Muhmenkeh, and her marriage to
Jean, and her dismissal of Arthur, she seems to have reverted to her thinking of the Hellmans as a
world apart, though she does state, Poor Mrs. Hellman! She felt guilty for her wealth, and I feel
guilty for being so happy(Yezierska, 152), though it is hard to discern whether this is said
sincerely, or in jest. But Adele's opinions of the rich are only one side of the struggle of class, and
the progressive movement did have a great deal of backing.

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The prevailing opinion among the rich, or at least those of the higher classes that were
portrayed in the novel, was much like Carnegie's advice about surplus wealth, Which he is
called upon to administer, and strictly bound as a matter of duty to administer in the manner
which, in his judgment, is best calculated to produce the most beneficial results for the
community-- (Carnegie, The Gospel of Wealth), that is, to give back to the lower class.
However, the manner in which they went about this did not appear the most respectful. During a
discussion that Adele overhears, we hear Mrs. Hellman call for better conditions and more
luxuries for her tenants, only to be reprimanded, and reminded that, We must not confuse their
standards of living with our own. (Yezierska, 62), lest they get, wrong notions of superiority
(Yezierska, 62). This causes the later speech by the Mayor, I always have done and always will
do everything in my power for the people, the common, hard-working, honest people, the
backbone of America (Yezierska, 83), to ring hollow, as it seems elevating the lower class is
only valuable so far as making one's self feel better. As Arthur Hellman is told he lacks
understanding of the poor, he responds, It sometimes takes all the patience and understanding
that ease and education have given one to cope with the dreadful arrogance of the poor. We all
have to meet life. One of the things that limits life most is each class claiming that it alone has
felt and suffered.... ...Poverty is [a struggle], and that you know. What difficulties I may have in
my life, you know nothing about. (Yezierska, 113), which appears, at first to be an explanation
for the failures of the rich. However, it fails to explain the lack of commonality the rich feel for
the poor, only reinforcing their ideas of similarity, and not refuting the earlier comments against
them.
The reality of this story isn't the documentation of a young woman's life, but rather how

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her life was changed by the efforts of a settlement house, changed by the process called
assimilation. The settlement house movement was pioneered in America by the pioneer reformer
Jane Addams, devoted to improving the lives of the immigrant poor (Foner, 700), modeled
after the original British settlement houses. While the idea is charitable, the ideas behind it
include more than just support for the 'new' immigrant lower class. When seen from another
perspective, the settlement houses were just another stem in American assimilation of new
peoples. The settlement houses would provide for the necessary needs and social values of the
new immigrants, ingratiating them with American values, while curbing their previous social
attitudes. However, to the migrants, it does not appear as such, something that feels morally
sketchy. According to Adele, The very inferiority which their kindness burned into me drove me
to get on my own feet in the quickest possible way. (Yezierska, 140), which caused her to
remove herself back to where she felt she belonged, in the Jewish community. So, in effect, the
process of assimilation both succeed and failed; she gained some of the behaviors custom to
Americans, and skills necessary to pour back into the community, but still identified with her
own culture more than the general view they wished to indoctrinate her with.
In the end, Yezierska's story is not that of a woman dealing with assimilation, but that of a
young woman dealing with the factors, like class, and her immigrant background. The changes
that she undergoes, in attitude, are not a function of her background, but her experiences in the
Hellman House and beyond.

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Works Cited
Lazarus, Emma The New Colossus New York City. 1883, Print.